A Guide to Indonesian Elections: Jokowi vs Prabowo

A closer look to the Indonesian elections, and what they mean for the balance of power in Asia (and the rest of the world).

Current President Jokowi (left) and his challenger Prabowo (right)

193 million Indonesians are called to vote for their Presidential Elections on April 17. They will have to choose between Joko Widodo, broadly known as Jokowi, and Prabowo Subianto, for his electors just Prabowo. Around 2 million actually already voted: they are the ones living abroad, who cast their preference ten to three days before the D-Day.

It will be a kind of re-match of the 2014 elections, when Jokowi won with a 6% margin on his opponent, collecting more than 70 million votes.

But who are the two candidates? Let’s take a closer look, of course from a Westerner perspective — even though I’m trying my best to understand the local perspective.

Jokowi: the Infrastructure-man

Jokowi is the candidate of the so called “Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle”, while Prabowo is the candidate of a coalition of parties including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the National Mandate Party (PAN), the Democratic Party and Berkarya Party.

President Jokowi during a “blusukan” visit to a fresh market

Jokowi was formerly known as Governor of Jakarta, where he gained a certain fame by introducing the “blusukan” technique, a kind of blitzkriegs to check out conditions in different areas of the cities. He became pretty famous also to harshly fight corruption, and during his 5 years as President he mostly focused on three things: infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure.

This makes particularly sense in a country that has been struggling to developing its potential mostly due to issues in connecting its very remote 18.000 islands.

Of course, Jokowi began by tackling the huge problem of traffic in its unbelievable large capital, Jakarta. He managed to come up with an MRT system that is helping the city breathe, in one of the most polluted megalopolis on the planet.

Another major item on the table of the President in these years has been this place down here: the Grasberg mine.

Grasberg mine’s huge open pit.

It is the largest gold mine in the world, in Papua, a region which is extremely difficult to manage because of its very high poverty rates and the independence movements that often create turmoil in the region.

The great achievement of Jokowi on this issue is that he managed to increase the shares of Indonesian governments in this mine from a mere 9% to 51%. Of course, it has been a very complicated deal and I’m simplifying the situation here, but for sure the benefits for the Indonesian economy will be experienced in the long term.

Under Jokowi, the Indonesian economy has kept on growing on a 5% basis, more or less in line with the former Presidency run by Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (aka SBY), but far less than what he declared during his last campaigns (steady growth of 7%).

According to Pwc, Indonesian economy will rank 4th in the world within the year 2050.

Jokowi is also seen by some critics as too close to Chinese Government, which, even though no main projects related to the Belt and Road Initiative are planned in the country yet, has funded some of the main infrastructure projects especially in Java area, such as the much discussed Jakarta-Bandung high speed rail. To some deprecators, this project linking two of the biggest cities in Indonesia is a waste of money, and it should not be one of the top-priorities.

Jakarta-Bandung HSR: a very expensive infrastructure project

Religion wise, Mr Jokowi is definitely a moderate, but he surprised many by picking Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate. Amin is a powerful cleric who played a key role in the protests that led to Ahok’s downfall. That was seen as an attempt to sway more conservative Muslim voters his way, but may have lost him some support among younger, liberal voters. In an infamous article appeared in The Economist, this political behavior was labelled as “the wrong way to win”.

Prabowo: ‘Make Indonesia Great Again’

Prabowo Subianto shows his thumbs.

So, let’s now see the challenger: Mr Prabowo. Mr Prabowo is closely associated with the traditional political elite. He was previously married to the daughter of former dictator General Suharto, who ruled Indonesia with an iron fist for three decades. In the very latest public debate against Jokowi, he admitted knowing to be “part of the 1% leading the country”, but also claimed he was sweating blood everyday for his nation”.

Prabowo became famous in 1996, when he led the Mapenduma Operation in the hills of the Indonesian side of Papua. The goal of the operation was the release of 11 scientific researchers, who had been taken hostage by the Free Papua Movement (OPM).

He is seen as a conservative candidate, and also the closest to traditional Islam. He promised to protect Islamic leaders and increase funding for religious schools, while respecting the constitution. He has earned endorsements from the Prosperous Justice Party, the largest Islamist party in parliament.

Economically speaking, Prabowo has been addressing his speech against the deindustrialization threat, targeting a more economically independent Indonesia. He’s the one who wants to “make Indonesia great again”.

This is also why he has campaigned a lot about the “softness” of the relationships Jokowi held with China, and claimed the necessity of holding a hard fist against China.

In some areas, Chinese are facing a wave of hate: just 53% of Indonesian population now hold favorable views of Chinese people, down from 66% in 2014. This is something that might sway the pendulum as well.

The Voters

According to the Elections Commission, around 40% of eligible voters will be aged 17 to 35 — around 80 million people.

And parties have been trying their best to attract the youth vote — sometimes in innovative ways, others more traditionally.

Last year Jokowi’s party, the PDIP, launched “fashionable” merchandise including T-shirts, hats and jackets.

Mr Prabowo has been building up relationships with vloggers, YouTubers and influencers — and no, I’m not one of them (but Jokowi doesn’t pay my bills either).

The Fake News shadow

As everywhere in the world, Fake News are playing a major role in the elections, with Facebook trying to cope with it shutting down fake profiles and pages. But with this demographical situation, and Indonesia being the 4th most active country on earth on Facebook, of course the risk is even higher.

According to Mafindo, a large proportion of the misinformation apparently targets Mr Jokowi, making him out to be a Christian, of Chinese ancestry, or a communist.

One of the countless Jokowi’s memes.

These may not sound like dramatic claims — but they’re big accusations in Muslim-majority Indonesia, where race and ideology are especially sensitive issues.

Polls: do use your right to vote!

According to the latest polls, it seems Jokowi is slightly ahead, but with a significant question mark related to the fact that many people seem likely to refrain from voting.

I hope this helped a little more in clarifying the situation for this amazing country, which is doomed to be one of the most important powers in the world in this century. This is why this vote shouldn’t bother only Indonesians and Asians, but anyone who’s interested in the development of the world new balance and order.

I dedicate this article to my great business partner and friend Wisjnu Trimulyono, who recently passed away.

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un, Wisjnu.

This article is also available as video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AbUAJY0E94

Terima Kasih!

Innovation and Internationalization Consultant, Journalist, Writer (Cybersec, Asia, Poetry)

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